BY R. H. PRANCß
ALBERT AND CHARLES BONI
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
1. Einstein's Relativity Theory
by R. Laemmel, Ph. D.
2. Natural History of the Child
by H. Dekker, M. D.
3. The Descent of Man
by W. Boelsche
4. The Creation of the World
by M. W. Meyer, Ph. D.
5. Why We Die
by A. Lipschutz, M. D.
6. Love Life of Plants
by R. H. Franck
7. Plants as Inventors
by R. H. Franck
8. War and Peace in the Ant World
by Prof. Sajo
9. The Cell
by J. Kahn, M. D.
10. The Culture of the Barbarians
by Prof. K. Weule, Ph. D.
OTHER TITLES IN PREPARATION
R. H. FRANCE
WITH NUMEROUS ILLUSTRATIONS
NEW YORK / ALBERT AND CHARLES BONI
PRINTED IN OERMANY OCTOBER 1M3
All rights reserved
3 ci 3 3
1 1 J 1 fc
Jung & Son, Printers, Stuttgart.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
An honest fellow, who lias something to tell, will tell it
simply and without digressions. So Schopenhauer declared
when he was enraged by the obscurities of Hegel's philosophy.
I was always convinced of the truth of this sentence; there-
fore I intend to tell in the simplest way how I discovered that
nature is the greatest inventor and how by that means I be-
came an inventor myself.
One morning I entered my laboratory, thoughtful and ill-
humoured, for I had been halted in my studies once more
and could not go on. At that time I was studying the life of
arable ground. Long ago it had been discovered that the dead
black earth was not really dead but filled up with myriads
of little beings which all have their own influence upon the
abundance of the crop. And it was to be supposed that we
could succeed in multiplying our crop if we could succeed
in increasing those useful earth-creatures. The simplest way
seemed to be to inoculate the soil with them, quite regularly
a dozen of the little germs of life sown over each square inch.
This was the problem of the day. This I could not solve
and therefore I was ill-humoured and thoughtful.
At first I tried different methods. 1 had already prepared
earth which contained myriads of the small desired plants.
1 mixed it with water and sowed it over my field. Then I
investigated the results: All was unevenly distributed.
I tried watering the soil regularly. Still no results! It be-
came evident to me that the inoculating earth had to be
spread in a half-dry state. That was the only way to success!
So I lived to see in my own house the old tragedy of inven-
tors for whom failure always is a teacher. None of them
died in vain: he taught his successors what they must avoid.
And to know that is really the most important thing in in-
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
venting. Invention is always running by compulsion, so that
it barricades by degrees one wrong way after the other until
at last only the right road remains open.
On that day, then, I decided that my right method was
dry strewing: The method I had first thought of. For there
is also a dark instinct for inventing which most inventors
trust exclusively, with so frequent dark and sad a fate.
Next morning 1 brought several tools with me, whatever
I could pick up; a common salt-box such as stands upon every
ordinary kitchen-table, a powder-sieve for physicians and little
children, and a sprayer. Then I began to experiment. Upon
sheets of white and black paper which were covered with
numbered squares my material was lightly sifted out, and
then I counted how many little grains were lying upon the
I did not succed at all with the sprayer. Powder-sieve
and salt-box distributed unevenly. The lower squares contained
double and triple the quantity that the upper ones did; and,
there was always less or more than I wished to have.
Thus my ship lay becalmed, and remained so for days
until I found the right way out.
We used to believe that events of great importance in our
life enter solemnly, announced by fore-runners, received
with splendour and grandeur, perhaps like princes entering
our life. Nothing falser than this opinion! The happiest
like the most terrible event always comes with the indifferent
face of every day; clad in the dress of insignificance what-
ever may be hidden beneath it.
So it was with that idea to which I owe so much. A
chance idea brought me the question which seemed quite
insignificant in the beginning: how does nature accomplish
sowing? For the plants have to sow their seeds and, a little
bit of thinking tells us at once, that they, too, must obtain the
regular distribution for which I was striving. If a fungus
is to provide descendants, it has no other way than to trust
its young generation, the fungus-spores, to be sown by the
wind, for there are only few fungus living in the water and
still fewer for which insects or snails manage that service,
In the same condition are the mosses. The wind blows their
spores from the capsules and sows them. If they are not distri-
buted evidely, two or still more will germinate side by side
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
and then begin to struggle for life. Instantly I saw- that
nature must have solved the problem. I only had to imitate
it and my problem would be solved.
But such a capsule of spores which I picked fromi a plant
which grows everywhere in humid woods and which I now
studied, is a very complicated mechanism. As long as it
is young and green, a little cap covers it, with a little lid
like a nightcap below it. Not before the capsule is ripe
does the lid fall away and show complicated new arrangements.
At the border of the capsule there are a great number of
delicate little teeth, the tops of which are joined to a tender
white skin which again shuts up the capsule. Now these
111. 1. R Biotechnical Invention and its Model.
The new shaker for household and medicinal purpose,
Patent No. 723730 (2) and a ripe poppyhead (1).
teeth are sensible to the humidity of the air. If the at-
mosphere is humid, they remain closely pressed together and
the sieve is closely shut. But if the air is dry they also dry
out, stretch out straight forward, lift the lid and all the
tooth-gaps appear on the sides. The capsule of spores moves
on its elastic stem and throws out spores.
This invention was too complicated for me. But as I
now had found the method I only had to seek further in
order to find a model fit for my purpose. AndV I found it in
the capsules of the poppy. Everyone knows them. Everyone
knows that the holes arranged in a circle under the lid serve
for the dispersal of the little poppy-grains, but no one thought
that here was a plant invention which excels man's. I know
it because I have examined it. A poppy-capsule filled with
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
grains of earth distributed much more evenly than I had been
able to before.
Astonished, puzzled, filled with an undefined joy I stood
on the threshold of a new discovery. With determination, 1
decided to make certain of my discovery. I drew a shaker
for salt, for powder and for medicines according to the model
of the poppy-capsule, and applied for a patent on it.
The application was not denied, and my “invention” was
given protection under Patent No. 723 730.
Still other inventions of by far greater significance are
under way. Some were refused by the patent-office, but not
because they were not practicable, but because the same thing
had been previously invented, which I could not know as I
am not an inventor by profession. However I am not inter-
ested in being called an inventor, for I am only a poor imitator
of nature. The most important thing for me was the principle;
and the patent office, which examines carefully and knows
every technical thing, by acknowledging that here are real
inventions, has acknowledged my law and the truth of my
doctrine, and thus in a manner officially acknowledged the
practical use of a philosophy before this philosophy had really
entered life. * ' J
So a new science is founded: the Biotechnic. This little
book will deal with its fundamental thoughts. They are founded
on a law of nature. And laws of nature are always true and
What is the origin of this law? How did' I find it or, who
revealed it to me?
It was a gift of the woods, a practical result of a philo-
sophy which begins with the simplest and with the most
natural object: with the poor little, easily fatigued head of man,
placed before the great, incomprehensible world. Contem-
plate the world thoughtfully; as I am accustomed to, when
I construct my philosophy: on the top of a mountain, lying
alone in the great silence with only the harmonies of the
spheres to listen to, and the solemnly resting heads of the
rocks, and behind them eternity, to gaze at, not at all dark but
glistening in the sun. Then, my mind is quickened with a thous-
and good thoughts. Or in my firwoods, in a little valley,
quiet too, warm, sunny, filled only with the sound of whist-
ling pointed leaves and chirping crickets; where the trees,
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
the blood-red gilly-f lowers, the bell-flowers, the whispering
honey-grasses have something to tell me every day in the
long hours of watching and thinking. A bud, which yester-
day was not stirring, or a leaf withering awayi, a little ebbing
life which is leaving us: these have their meanings to convey;
anywhere, the bright procession of the clouds takes my thoughts
with it, over and over again, far away, above all men, countries,
wishes, cares, above instinct and petty ambition to the quiet
ever-resting universe. The little sand-wasps, which fly
here and there to their mysterious homes on the pale sand-
hills, are my brothers, as are, also, the dark shadowy dragon-
flies which sit down noiselessly beside me, and the confiding
blue butterflies which are like a kind smile looking at the
industrious writer and then tumbing away until they too
disappear in the universe like myself. From this philosophy
of sunny days I brought with me the pale last abstraction
of the personality who says: I know nothing. Nothing is
anticipated, nothing given; nothing is sure for me except
that there is that universe, that immense plurality of my
And upon this thought only, as on a corner-stone, logical
thinking can be constructed.
Is existence uniform? My mind asks. No, my experience
proves it. It is a construction of different parts. With me, one
became two. We may proceed with our thought. We can oppose
the whole to its parts and we are sure that there must be a
regular proportion between them. What proportion? This, that
the whole influences the parts, each part the other, and they
all together every part again. If, therefore, the part itself
shall endure, it must have its own qualities, must be unlike
the other parts and the universe. Or a bit more significantly
and therefore more comprehensibly: each part must “be”,
must have its own nature and qualities, must be an individual.
Everything either can dissolve in the universe or “be”. But
besides this quality of perseverance another quality inheres
The universal is a construction of different parts. That is
expressed heavily; you would say more exactly and simply: It
is a complex system. Parts of that complex system are removed
and they are all endangered, for this threatens to destroy their
original qualities. They disturb and influence each other, lose
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
their position of rest and seek to get it back by their quality
of perseverance. By that activity is set on foot. Beside individ-
uality there stands change. Existence stipulates happening.
According to a uniform law, for it is true for all things, exist-
ence and change preside over our world.
So at once all things have become squint-eyed, as when
we look down on town and country from a very high mount-
ain, many thousand men and their works, woods and meadows,
nature and culture melt together into one picture. And seen
from the height of our contemplation existence and happening,
world and processess of the world melt into one, into the
notion of the natural. From very high mountains we observe
the strange phenomenon that the things of sharpest delineation,
— the bank where we rested before climbing up, the great
tree, which gave a shadowed seat, the hut of our night's
lodging, seen from above, have disappeared, melted into the
green or blue dusky table of a meadow or a wood,
dissolved into the flat grey identity with which everything
is enveloped for the human eye at a great distance. The same
process occurs in thinking: notions melt into each other if
they are looked upon from a great distance; they are changed
into a grey incomprehensible void. So well-known is that
to us, that we have given a name to this incomprehensible
change: we call it abstraction. We have become accustomed
perhaps the most admirable abstraction of the human mind
— to give signs to these abstractions; marks, which we call
numbers to calculate with. The hour of that admirable in-
vention was called the birthday of mathematics. The whole
world is contained in these numbers, when seen from the
highest of all mountains of thought from which all things
shrink together to pale, grey, natureless abstractions. The
number is perhaps the most interior, the most secret skeleton
of all things, and is common to them all. Charming and horrible
at the same time is that power of mathematical thinking.'
Fragrant, manifold and confusing the magic garden of life
is spread around us — the mathematican enters and at once
the peach-cheeks of the beautiful woman become pale,
the flowers fade away, the mountains sink down, all flesh
withers away in a terrible dance of death. The apparition
of all senses flees like smoke and only the pale last skeleton
of every thing remains: its numerable worth. And all happening:
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
looks of love, hot kisses, silent mourning, dark deeds, proud
effects evaporate into their nature: They are only functions
of the number. In the place of the moment we lived to see
stands there stiffly, ghostly, dead, but full of interior life,
clear as crystal and apt to be neatly ruled: The mathematical
Thus at the beginning of our world, stands, as a copy of
godlike eternity, with the deep penetration of an eye in which
a whole world is reflected, the equation: 1=1. It is the temple-
mystery in the most interior cell of God's temple itself. And
if you have once conceived what magical significance is hidden
in mathematics, then, it is the most charming and most
important of all occupations. Upon a sheet of paper with
a pencil in your hand you rule over the world by its help.
1 = 1 is the contents of a great book. 1=1 tells us that every-
thing is identical with itself; that everything in order to
be fulfilled has to return to itself. If you subtract something,
if you add something, it cannot be one still, but now begin
mathematical, countable and therefore lawful processes; out
of existence grows happening which endures till one is one
All must have its best form, its "optimum" which is also
its nature at the same time. To repeat, because the thesis
is so very important: There is for everything, be’ it a concrete
thing or a thought, only one form which corresponds to the
nature of that thing, and which being changed disturbs the
state of rest and provokes activity. These processes work
by force, that is lawfully by destruction of the old form until
the optimal, essential form of rest is reached, in which’ form
and nature are identical again.
This return is made in the shortest way. We call it the
way of the least expenditure of energy, and perceived its
operation long ago in daily life in the much quoted' axiom:
the shortest way is always the best. This least expenditure of
energy is also expressed in the equation, 1=1. For the indentity
is the shortest way to itself at the same time. The optimal
form is also that of the least portion of energy, that of the
intensest function. Like wedge-formed writing upon rock,
the fundamental knowledge about form and function is en-
graved in our brain for ever with these lapidarian sentences.
What astonished us so much and was admired boundlessly
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
two generations ago: the thought of selection, is recognized
as a nearly self-evident law of the world, and most simple
derivations are so clear that everyone is almost able to examine
them in his own mind. Each form changes, none of them is
enduring until it is Ihe optimal form which then always
corresponds to the nature of things.
Uninterruptedly, by a mechanical world-selection, new forms
are selected and an imperfect thing cannot abide, but must
develop until it is perfect in accordance with its nature. All
changes however take place according to the law of the
least expenditure of energy; a process which may be called
the law of economy.
It is the law of every function that it seeks by selection to
become the shortest process. Translated into a quite simple
example, a stone which has lost its position of rest seeks
to find it again in the shortest way; and of many stones rolling
down a mountain, that one will find its position of rest
soonest which is falling perpendicularly. The process itself
is natural for us because of its certainty and regularity.' We
see it take place often and from this experience we abstract
the notion of the law of gravitation, a general law of nature.
The shortest way by which a process comes to its conclusion
is its law of nature. Things arrive at their eternal position
of rest, when they attain their optimal condition of rest, when
they exert a minimum of opposition to that condition.
1 concede without any objection that I am carrying these
thoughts to a tedious, tiresome extreme. But the reader who
followed my reasoning will concede that now the top is
reached and that he is rewarded by a wider outlook. For now we
understand what laws of nature are, and that to every process
belong, by necessity, fundamental forms of change. If you
descend from the regions of these last abstractions, in the
cold atmosphere of which you have tarried so long, you
can express the same thing much more intelligibly and much
more simply in the thesis now completely motivated for us:
Every event has its necessary technical form. The technical
111. 2. The structure of protoplasm.
1. Comb-structure from a swinging-thread-cell. 2. Comb-structure of a bacteria (b-
lineola). 3. Kernel-structure of an infusorium. 4. Sketch of the structure of protoa
plasmic elementary threads according to Fayod and Entz. 5. Thread-building in .
dividing cell-kernel. 6. Protoplasm. Sphere-bubbles of a primitive animal (Colloxoum)
7. Plasma spiral-threads (seed-thread of a snail, fieolis).
Explanation in Foot-Note on page 12
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
form always arises by processes as functional forms. They
obey the law of the shortest process and are always attempts
to find optimal solutions of the problem to be solved. Every
process thus produces for itself its technical form; cooling
requires cooling surfaces, pressure occurs only at points of
pressure; pull only along lines of pull. Movement produces
forms of movement, every energy its form of energy.
Thus life has its form of life. Each of its functions has
its corresponding form. And life as a unity working together
has its own individuality. (Everyone who has only the slightest
scientific education knows it). It is in its simplest form proto-
plasm, or in its bodily form, the cell.
Here, then, an excellent definition of the cell is offered to
us: It is the bodily form of life.
By that definition the adventurous and strange little grey
being which we call a living cell filled with protoplasm
becomes intelligible. All its pecularities are explained if we
look upon it as one of the optimal forms of the functions of
life. What can a living cell do, what must it do in order to
maintain its life. It must be material, substantial, if it is to
have any influence upon the things of the world. It must
have matter therefore. The cell, before it adopts its special
form, must have the faculty of being moulded into every form.
Therefore the protoplasm is fluid and elastic, it is amoeboid.
Its outer surface has the facility of unlimited movement, for
it is formless and capable of taking every form. According to
the type of movement, it adopts an optimal form for its
functions: a form of feet in order to creep, a waving undul-
ating border in order to propel itself through the water, and
the whip in order to swim swiftly.
In the protoplasm itself each of its actions has modelled
corresponding parts according to the law of the least re-
sistance for propagation, the cell-kernel; for secretion, bubbles
filled with air and liquid and the secretion, compressed into
the least space, the sphere like little grains. (See 111. 2.)
Down to the lowest visible limits there is no atom which
does not obey the law of its bodily form. And it must conform
to it, whether it is a cell living for itself and no larger than
a grain of dust, or whether it is only a part of a greater
system which we can observe, and see every day as\ a plant
or an animal.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
The cell has a form for every function. If it remains in
complete rest, if all functions have been stopped in it for a
while, it returns to the fundamental form, the globe. Ini the
globe the inner and outer pressure are compensated equally
and completely; with that a multitude of processes come to
rest. The form of a globe realizes the idea of the least
expenditure of energy. Therefore, a balance of interior tensions
can be attained only when a ball shape has been' assumed.
This is true for stars and star-systems, for the earth, and
for every material to which human hands gave a form, as
well as for the smallest egg or the smallest particle hidden
in the most remote corner. This law extends to our culture,
and to all fancies of the sovereign human spirit. Any, system,
where everyone is to bear an equal burden, will take the form
of a sphere. That is a law of necessity — the real god.
Necessity prescribes certain forms for certain qualities.
Therefore it is always possible — and this is the most important
thesis of the doctrine of bodily forms, the elements of which
we are studying here, — to infer the activity from the shape,
the purpose from the form. In nature all forms are crystal-
lized, processes and every delightful figure a creation of
A system of tensions, changing in a hundred varieties,
becomes a crystallized form. Hitherto, we glanced through
the collection of minerals with an eye only for beauty, with
the idea only of aesthetic enjoyment; now the silent world
of the dodecahedrons and klinorhombes, the glittering ores
and precious sparkling stones will tell us the history of
the powers hidden in them. Where tension and pressure have
to perform the same tasks, the same crystal-form grows up;
be it deeply hidden in the interior part of an iron-girder,
in a stiff dark porphyr rock a thousand yards under the
sunny fields, or whether in the cell-form of a glistening
green stem, or whether it is in a figure, great or little made
by human hands. The wooden block, or the stone, or
the piece of glass, lacks the qualities of a cube or a prism
until we give it the form of a cube or a prism. By force we
reproduce nature in order to give to our work the qualities
I herefore everything which is designed for pulling must
be ribbon-shaped. The muscular fibre; the leaf of the sea-
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
grass Najas exposed to the currents; the fibrile, (scarcely a
twenty-thousandth of an inch long) which is deeply embedded
in the separating cell and which must draw apart the halves
of the cell-kernel; the great muscles and strings in an animal's
body or in the human body; the ship's rope; the traces of an
equipage; and the driving belts of the transmission. In the
great majority of pulling-functions the same form occurs
inevitably. The cord, for it is the optimal technical form of
draught. If we were living in the age of the Greek philosophers
I would be most quickly understood if I said, that form is one
of the demiurges which maintain and reproduce the world.
To lean one must have a staff. The old man leans upon
his; the roof of a temple upon the row of columns, which are
also thick staffs. Trunks, formed like pillars, are built also
by the palm-tree in order to support its fan crown; by the
beech-tree to support the green burden of its leaves. Every
corn-stalk builds a hollow staff to carry its ears; the bone of
my own leg is a staff, the smallest unicellular creatures project
staffs when supporting functions belong to their necessities of
life. When wind and rain models a pyramid from the loam of
the earth, with a rock crowning its summit, it also erects
The shape of a screw is adopted by everything which has the
function of boring and squeezing through. A tiny bacteriauses
it to screw through its world — a drop of water; the
terrible spirochaete penetrates, by means of its screw-shape,
through all textures, through all the cells of the man suffering
with syphilis. The light, screw form of the wings of the
maple-seed serves to propel it through the air in the same
manner as propellers do an airplane, or the immense wing-
screw does an ocean-liner. The gimlet, by virtue of its form,
bores into wood more readily than a nail; by virtue of its
form, a screw holds more securely than a plug.
We, ourselves, did not invent the screw, the gimlet, and
the propellor; nor did the bacteria, the scourging infusoria,
or the plants; nor yet the wind which moves mosf rapidly
in spiral windings. The natural law — deeply embedded in the
structure of the world — stands behind all these occurences:
spiral movement occurs with less expenditure of energy than
movement in a straight line. Therefore, the movement is accom-
plished much more frequently, if the form is spiral than if
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
it is not. If something is moving forward, the least inclin-
ation towards the spiral makes its passage easier; and the
resistance which it encounters models it mechanically. In other
words, the type of movement, itself, produces the optimal
organ for its accomplishment.
The fundamental technical forms of the world are con-
tained in the crystalline-form, the globe, the plane, the pole,
the ribbon, the screw, and the cone. They suffice for every
process of the world's occurrences: every process can find
its optimal form in them. Everything that exists is a combin-
111. 3. Skeleton of Coelestin (mineral-matter), which the Radiolaria uses
to support the protoplasm of its single cell. (After Haeckel.)
ation of these seven fundamental forms; but beyond this sym-
bolical number of seven we have no other form. Nature has
produced no further form; and the human-mind may devise
whatever ingenious shapes it will, they all are combinations
and variations of these seven fundamental ones.
It seems incredible to us, and we industriously search our
neighbourhood for forms to disprove it. Here stands a fine
old house, a many gabled building of the latter Middle Ages.
I place my scales upon it, and what do I find? It is a cube,
with a prism resting on it as a roof. The walls of the roof
are planes; in the volutes of the gable we find the spiral, or
screw; the window-frames are built of poles; the entrance
hall is supported by columns, i. e. by poles; a globe crowns
the turret: from first to last there is nothing in this grand
old building which cannot be derived from the seven funda-
mental bodily forms.
branch, Plants as Inventors
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
A bunch of fresh field flowers stands on my work-table.
Every week there is a different variety, this week: common
John's wort, arvensis, blue-bell of the meadow, bird's-foot,
and bull's-head. Together a glimpse at random into the life of
nature. I make a thoughtful analysis of their forms. Petals
and leaves are planes; the crown (corolla) of the blue-bell
is composed of ball, cone, and planes. As in a Rococo ornament
occu r conchoid and spiral-plane — both derived from the
spiral; the stalks are poles. Though all forms are recoined
in life with their own purpose, and are recast and complicated
in the greatest measure, I could find only the seven funda-
mental forms; and I had searched and figured for a quarter
of an hour before giving up the attempt to discover a new form.
I had pursued my search from the builder’s art to the
loveliest products of nature, and had found nothing new.
Perhaps a masterpiece of human creation may serve to teach
me better. I stand before a steam-engine, a locomotive, and
seek a refutation of my thesis. I know from the elementary
doctrines of mechanics what I can expect. Wedges, taps,
screws, rivets, axles, blocks, couplings, gearing, chains, pistons,
piston-rods, cross-heads, stuffing-boxes, cranks, eccentrics, con-
necting-roads, cylinders, tubes, valves — no machine construct-
ed by human hands ever consisted of more (111. 4).
I put my measure of the seven forms of nature on each
element of an engine and solve all the shapes, of disks, of
rods, of screws, of crystalline-forms, of cones, of spherical
surfaces. The most unusual parts such as the eccentric
wheel employed in our spinning-machines, are composed of
screws and planes, which also appear in combination in nature.
No technical form exists which cannot be traced to the
forms of nature. Here, like everyone who comprehends this
matter, I am astounded by what is uncovered before us. We
have in this one law the explanation in one formula of
life — all life, mechanics — all mechanics, industry, archi-
tecture, all the ideas of the artists from the builders of the
pyramids to the expressionists, the experimenters of the present.
Eagerly we search on. But everything we touch becomes
ashes in the flame of that idea: the forms of minerals — ore
and stones, mountains and heavenly bodies, chemical combin-
ations, geography, and even the human body and every arti-
ficial structure, all dissolve into the seven elements of the world.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
There are only seven fundamental technical forms! They
are the basis of architecture, of the parts of an engine, of
crystallography and chemistry, geography and astronomy, of
art, or industry — of the whole world. And the world teeming
with life has produced no other possible forms.
I advanced the weightiest argument for that contention
when f showed that the form of the cell is nothing but the
111. 4. The elements of which all machines are composed.
2, 3. Screws. 4. Rivet. 5. Tap. 6. Axle. 7. Block. 8. Coupling. 9. Qear
11. Valve. 12. Piston. 13. Crosshead. 14. Connecting-rod. 15. Crank
16. Eccentric. 17. Stuffing-box. (Drawing by Walter France.)
bodily form of life. The form of the cell is infinitely manifold,
for not only are there 60 cell-forms in animal and human
texture and 16 in those of plants, but also about 6 000
one-cell animal-algae, 4 000 plant algae, about 8 000 radiolariae,
3 000 other unicellular animals; altogether about 25 000 cell-
forms which differ from each other, although often only
slightly nevertheless sufficiently to make it possible to describe
them separately. In rich profuseness living matter has realized
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
every possibility of formation and the artist's fancy seems
a bungling imitator in comparison.
This has been proved by an experiment. Several artists
were asked to create as many variations of a decorative form
as they could. They could draw only a few dozen, although
in the world of unicellular bodies there are hundreds of
different models. You may try the same experiment in order
Technical Arrangements of Unicellular Organisms (Radiolariae) which combine
solidity of protoplasmic structure with the faculty of swift swimming.
to convince yourself. Try to draw variations of one of the
fundamental forms on a sheet of paper. You can start with
the ball, carrying it through all the egg-shapes, elliptic, shell,
trellis-work ball, star, etc., and see how soon you will stop.
Then you may pick up a volume on algaeology, — preferably
plant algaeology, — and you will then become forever con-
vinced that living matter as an inventor of forms cannot be
matched by man.
But what you can see in the world of cells recurs again
in the structures which the cells build together. A long time
before science had conceived the idea of the cell, about the
time when the first clumsy attempts were made to gaze into
the interior magnificence of life through poor' microscopes,
the fantastic Swede, Swedberg, whom the world knows only
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
by his name as a nobleman, Swedenborg, conceived the start-
ling idea for his generation that the world is a great unity.
He pictured it as an eternal flowing of the same things, a
return of similar laws, only in different intensities; at one
time concealed in small things, at another returning with a
giant's steps to construct rocks and mountains, to write with
starry script upon the heavens, or to assume spiritual shape
and become feeling in man's brain and heart.
111. 7. fln Artistic Form of Nature, really a masterpiece of stability
and economic construction.
The fanciful assessor of mines from Stockholm has long
beeil forgotten, and nobody thinks that it is his idea which
biology has adopted as the law of degrees of integration —
which means that the forms and laws of unicellular life recur
in higher stages in higher degrees of intensity. Physics also
employs this idea, which is very helpful for it in explaining
the theory of electrons by comparison with a solar-system.
The movements and relations of the star-filled sky are con-
ceived to recur in the invisible world of electrons.
The technical formations, which in the uni-cellular life
confuse and charm our senses, follow precisely the magic
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
round of the same law in the masterpieces built by cells,
leaves, fruit, animals and plants. The same inexhaustible richness
and the same structural forms are again found in a higher
degree of integration, — and always obeying the law of
the seven fundamental forms and their combination, perforce,
as instruments of the functional purpose.
III. 8. Celestin Skeleton ol a Radiolario from Tropical Waters
Compare ills. 5 and 6.
Even inside the cell it is not different. The same law
recurs within the perception of our eyes, which bring great
and small into our mental conception; within the visibility
of a microscope which does the same thing for the minute.
Still, that smallest of small worlds, the intracellular world,
is not fully opened to man's eye. It is only in the last thirty
years that the microscope lias been perfected to the point
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
of spying out the minute and secret structure of the cell: the
cell-kernels, the grains of chlorophyll, and the tender scum
of living stuff.
It is as exciting as walking along forbidden paths to
peep into a world where the thousandth part of a cubic
millimeter (approximately one twenty-five thousandth of an
inch) is a space which appears to be no less complicated and
complete than his corpse is to the young medical student
as he gazes at it timidly where it is resting on his anatomical
table. (See 111. 2.)
Within the cell we see another world of cells, the still
smaller corner-stones of life, which we call combs and which
form cells in the same manner as cells form organisms. On
the edges of and within these combs there are still smaller
granules, and then again threads, ribbons, spirals and small
prisms. Such, for instance, are the muscle-fibres and nerve-
cells and a whole star-system of most delicate threads which
is developed in every cell when it divides. (111. 2, ex. 5).
Again all these parts shape themselves in accordance with
the law of the seven fundamental forms, and we recognize
that the intracellular organism does not differ from that of
the cell or other organisms.
Similarly, in whatever degree of integration, the same
mechanical system universally regulates the entire activity of
life, and the theory which we hypothecated when we approached
the consideration of the cell as a technical form of life, has
now become a well-thought out and proved concept.
The laws of the least resistance and economy
of action force equal actions to lead to the
same forms, and force all processes in the world
to develop accordingto the law of the seven fun-
The analysis of the fundamental law of bodily formation
is now finished, and one of the perhaps most consequential
and practical inspections of our life-processes has become
completely clear. The technique of nature (cells, plants, and
animals, and man) are reduced to a universal fact founded
on the structure of the world.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
If you walk through the world of plants using the know-
ledge which you have just aquired, field and garden, meadow
and wood and rain-drop turn at once into an open-air museum,
a model collection of technical miracles, to be used as artists
use art-museums to gather ideas from the collected riches
It would require a monumental work in many volumes to
explain and make available the models and types of technical
culture which our open-air museum contains. In the scope
of this work I must limit myself to a few selected master-
pieces. But inspection of selected portions of a museum is
always more profitable than attempting to see everything
and losing its lessons in fatigue.
As an old guide of many years experience in the museum
of the bio-technic, I shall show only six halls and 1 contract
to convey the right idea of the bio-technical structure of plants.
These are the hall of the flagellates, the hall of the plant algae,
the great center hall of the plant-cell, and the small rooms
of the leaf, the trunk, and the fruit.
The entrance leads to the little world of the uni-cellular
beings of the drop of water, to machines resembling those
wonderful clocks made to fit into a pearl, but which are still
more marvelous because they would not fill a grain of sand.
But we know that the law of integration allows this miracle,
and that small and large have significance only for man who
measures them in comparison with himself but not for the
Take a little bit of bottom-mud from the gold-brown bottom
of any peacefully flowing stream, in an idyllic silent creek
surrounded by water-roses and enmeshed in tangles of mouse-
ear chickweed, with banks bedecked with the lovely blooms
of herbs and umbels of rushes. Let some leaves and stalks
rot in a small aquarium and you have enough material for a
111. 9. Flagellate Forms as Examples of Perfect Swimming Organisms,
t. Chilomonas paramoecium, one of the most freguent rapid swimming forms. 2. Strep-
tomonas cordata, with a keel. 3. Rnisonema, with a towing whip. 4. Urceolus cos-
tatus, a screw form. 5. Euglena tripteris a model propeller. 6. Syromonas ambulans,
a propeller form which has been copied in ship-building. 7. Trypanosoma, with its
spiral whip. 8. Spiral whip of 7, enlarged 9. Tropidoscyphus octocostatus, an un-
known form of screw. 10. Heteronerna spirale, a model for the torpedo. 1 1. Monod,
a modern propeller form. 12. Tetramitus costatus, a still unused model for a ship’s
hull for speed-boats. 13. Monad, a new variation of the propeller.
111. 9. Flagellate Forms (Explanation opposite).
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
study of the flagellates, as much as you would need for a jwhole
summer's examination under your microscope. What are flagel-
lates? Unicellular organisms! Sometimes green or golden
brown, and then they are harmless plants. Sometimes trans-
parent, like glass, and then they are usually filled with other
unicellular plants, for these are as voracious as wolves, and
are the tigers of their world.
Both the vegetable and the mineral flagellates must swim
as long as they live. The vegetable can also seek the vivifying
sun-light under the varying conditions of its life. Industrious
and unswerving like a star in its heavenly course, they
drive through the drop of water in which you may observe
them, and rise or descend like golden dust if the sunlight
shines on them. The others rush about rapidly. They arc
swifter like all beasts of prey, and rush like an arrow on
their victims, which very often they catch only after a clever
Both, therefore, have solved the problem of the swimming
form; indeed, the despoilers have become simply a “swimming-
body." The law of the least resistance has given to their
bodies the slender form of a ship to enable them to part the
waters. They all swim submerged: the submarine boat has
only repeated their form by force of the same law. Their
end is frequently drawn out in a long keel (ill. 9, sec. 12);
if they need it for further stability, a real keel may be annexed
(ill. 9, sec. 2) so that our boats only embody a principle
employed by protoplasm. In place of the keel we very often find
a strange invention which airships and not ships of the sea
have long used. We should have tried a boat made according
to this plan approved by life’s models. Section 3 of illustration
9 represents one of these small, common flagellates of marsh-
water, to which science has given the high-sounding name
of anisonema. It gives itself up to the specialty of swimming-
forms, and has another invention in its body. On its under
side as it swims, extends a long cord, which floats behind
and is useful as a rudder as well as for increased stability.
It is astonishing how steadily the little anisonema — it takes
twenty-five of them to extend one inch — swims through the
water. How quietly it swims and turns, how suddenly it can
stop: it certainly controls the element it lives in.
These furrows and incisions occur in surprisingly many
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
flagellates, especially in the group of monads, which belong
to the fleetest and most voracious carnivora of that world
of minute organisms. They race through the drop of water like
swallows through the air. Often they rush so rapidly through
the observer's field of vision that only a glittering wake
reveals their existence; and the novice, blinded and puzzled,
but also charmed by so swift a ship, has difficulty in seeing
it at all. Section 12 of illustration 9 pictures this bird of the
Its frame is unknown to the human technique of ship-
building. When I applied it to the design of a ship's hull
below water, in a practical way without using Norman's
formulae, the engineer whom I consulted for the calculations
of the model declared his astonishment that a type of ship
could be made with so much greater speed and economy
of fuel-consumption by the use of this hull-shape. There is
no doubt that ship-builders of the future will be forced to
study the many strange, peculiarly shaped, skipper flagellates
and infusoriae. (See ill. 9, sec. 1 and 7). They drift about before
everyone's eyes, marine and aviation models whose usefulness
has been tested by millions of years of life and practical
application. For each function becomes more vigorous by
natural selection, to which all living things are subjected.
Every bodily form of a living creature is subjected to the
struggle for existence, and is constantly under examination for
its usefulness so that we might say that only the "optimal
models'' are able to maintain and propagate themselves. In
nature, also, there is a patent-office which admits only useful
inventions, and excludes from practice all those which do not
bear the imprint, probatum e s t (it is good ).
You must realize that the swimming forms of the water
calculate on a different motor from ours. Since antiquity we
have had only one method: to screw ourselves through the
water. We can do this as well by rowing, which forces water-
columns on the side of the boat to whirl in a slow spiral* by
which the hull of the boat is forced forward. It would be
driven in a circle; to prevent this we row on both sides, or
turn off the water-whirl by a keel, or more conveniently by
*) Paddle-wheel steamers, which seem to be based on another principle,
really produce a spiral whirl as the flow of water caused by the revolving
paddles is thrust by the convex ship's hull to both sides in a spiral.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
a rudder. The screw of a ship is only an improvement of
that principle, and when fixed, as usual, at the back-board
of the steamer, gives a back push to the water.
The hull of the flagellates is screwed forward by a very
strange oar; the more delicate structure and purpose of which
we have discovered only recently: its real significance coming
to light only under the influence of the bio-technical law.
This oar is called a \vhip, and we believed it to be a simple
cord which is swung like a whip, (See ill. 9, sec. 3) a flagel-
late body has anywhere from one to eight whips, which vary
considerably but are generally attached to the front of the
body. Some of these whips, as, for instance, the drag-whip
of the anisonema pictured in section 3 of illustration 0, are
certainly not useful for movement, but only for steering and
balancing. They also havd a different structure from the organs
of movement. They are not threads — I have often examined
them, myself — but they are ribbon-shaped like oars (ill.
9, secs 7 and 8). They are slightly twisted in a spiral and
produce a screw-like whirl by their motion so that the body
is driven forward by it. Frequently two, and occasionally four
whips, (ill. 9, secs. 6 and 12) work together in splendid
and incomparable unison. Besides there are very complex
arrangements which we must be content to merely mention
in this general review of the bio-technical science. There is
still something to be learned from them which our nautical
engineers may wake from their sleep and study from the
point of view of the technical man.
This much we can see: the solution of the problem of
ship propulsion through the “screw-whip” of the flagellate
is an ideal case of economical effectiveness. We have to employ
engines of 40 000 to 70 000 horsepower and an immense
capacity for consumption of coal to attain 23 sea-miles* an
hour; a little monad attains not the speed of one and a
fraction inches** per hour which I calculate is the propor-
tionate speed according to its size in comparison with our
swiftest steamers, but a many thousand times better effect.
The monad, propelled by its whip-screw, can swim 20 mm
a second ( 4 /, 5 of an inch); and many of these creatures whirl
*) Approximately 27 ordinary (land) miles.
**) The monad is V 100 mm long (less than 4 / ioooo of an inch); the
steamer 200 m (656 ft.).
PLANTS AS INVENTORS 29
only the upper part of their whip, thus utilizing only a small
part of their bodily strength.
This is the superiority of organic construction to that
of human technique.
Great rapidity of motion more than proportionately raises
the resistance of the water. This is overcome, as we already
know, by the screw form of the body, which cuts the water.
It is simple necessity that all rapidly moving flagellates have
inherited cutting spiral lines, often entirely screw-shape, as
a glimpse at illustration 9, secs. 4 and 9 — 11, and illustration
13 will make evident. This torsion is general among this
group of rapid swimmers, and appears also among the most
alert bacteria — vibriones and spir-
elles. We can see from this how
important this technical form is
for the attainment of the most
effective results in swimming.
Human technique cannot afford
to neglect the advantage of this
form for torpedo and submarine
boats. Man used the same prin-
ciple in another application without
realizing that it was following the
best models available, since the be-
ginning of life, in the drop of
water. The gun muzzle is rifled to give the advantage of the
spiral-flight to the bullet.
The propeller, also, is nothing but an application of the
same principle. Even if ship-builders have also adopted other
models again and again; even if the American and English
navies, each swears by its own model; the oldest ship-building
firm in the world can point to its rich collecton of models
among which there are a great many which, though tried
by Nature, have not yet been tried by man. (C. ill. 9, sec. 6).
Experiments would certainly show some of these to have
advantages for special applications.
The modern engineer, it is true, has only a superior smile
for all these somewhat antiquated questions, since he has made
an invention of quite another bearing in the turbine-steamer.
But in the bio-technical museum of nature a particularly good
collection of turbines and turbine-ships awaits the attention
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
and imitation of man. Our home waters contain these models
demanded by every-day needs; but if you want to see them
in their greatest perfection you must seek them where the
best swimming abilities are too. In the ocean, far from the'
coast, millions of tiny plants, measuring at most a fraction of a
111 11. Peridineae of the Sea as Natural Turbines.
1. Goniodoma acuminatum. 2. Ornithocercus magnificus. 3. Dinophysis acuta. 4 . Gym-
nodinium spirale. 5. Ornitho cercus splendidus. 6. Gymnodinium rhomboides.
millimeter, rush about. To these glittering, gold-brown plants,
tender as glass, botanists gave the family-name of p e r i d i n e a e.
A glance at illustration 1 1 shows that they have strange,
if pretty forms. Observation shows that they have an advent-
urous sort of life. They drift about freely in the water;
the further away from the coast they are the safer they
are from the powdering breakers.
They do not swim on the surface; there they would
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
be exposed to destruction by the waves. Their kingdom is
a few feet below the surface of the water, where it is quiet
but where an honest plant can still find light enough to
live by. In order to maintain themselves at this depth they
have developed certain technical actvities of a very compli-
cated sort. Their tiny body, a simple cell, cloaks itself in a
coat of mail of pure cellulose; only a few of them (ill. 11
sec. 4) are completely unprotected. In this cellulose they
have a plastic building material of the very best quality for
modelling. Out of it they build a leading apparatus which
directs the currents of the surrounding water into special
courses. Look at illustration 11, section 1 or 4. Without
being an engineer you can see
that side currents, averted by
this formation into the spiral
courses, will force the whole
body to rotate like a mill-wheel.
The little peridinea screws itself
upwards by this resource, since
it can easily be seen that this
motion must be recurrent. It
will not escape the technician
that the leading lines become m . , 2 . Modem Turbine,
narrower at their ends. Sections Compace the leadways for the water nith
1, 4, and 2 of illustration 11 illustration n.
show this most clearly. By this the instreaming water is retard-
ed slightly in its course, producing a back-pressure, an econom-
ical over-pressure which can be observed in the accelerated
motion of the cell. Through this construction, it accomplishes
more work than would be indicated by the motion per-
It is not necessary that I analyse much more. Even the
man who is only slightly acquainted with technical theory knows
that the turbine is founded on the same principle. Water
with over-pressure rushes through a spiral lead (guide-wheel)
onto a revolving wheel, the rotation of which unties living
energy. It is a question for engineers to determine which of
the little peridineae correspond to the Henschel-Jonval-turbine,
which to the Francis type; if the curve of the paddles is
entirely rational; whether it corresponds to that of our turbine
or is perhaps superior by virtue of the use of affecting
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
planes. There are thirty-two species of peridineae with one
hundred and sixty variations. Each of them adapts a different
form for the application of the turbine principle. Man has
scarcely a dozen types of turbine. It is clear tha,t much
can be gained by the study of this organism for application
to mechanical turbines.
I should like to mention one fact in this place, to make
clear the importance of the biotechnical for everyone, not
alone for practical engineering.
We have always supposed that it was the power of the waves
which drove the little peridinea engine. Our turbines, also,
are based on the power of flowing water. But reflect upon
The peridinea cell is heavier than water. It would sink
of its own weight to the bottom of the sea if the slightest
motion of the water were not converted into a manifoldly
swifter motion of the peridinea. The position in which our
little plant is pictured in sections 2 and 5 of illustration 1 1
is preserved when it sinks by balancing, keel, and rudder
arrangements — especially noteworthy in the beautiful, so-
called, “bird-tails" (ornithocercus). In this position the ascend-
ing water-stream produced by the sinking is diverted spirally
into the leading apparatus, in which a long channel joined
to the cross-furrow works with it. (Section 6). Over-pressure
is produced by the tapered-off outlet and, as you can easily
calculate, works ast' a brake; even creates active power and the
little apparatus not only stops sinking but even starts to rise
until over-pressure is exhausted and the sinking starts again.
In this manner the peridinea-cell rises and sinks in the water
like a Cartesian diver, and hovers near the surface, as the
needs of its life demand. Both of its whips (one of which
lies in the cross-furrow) are used only to compensate for
the disturbance of its balance by the waves or to change its
position horizontally. In this little, mysterious object, no larger
than a grain of sand, we behold an unknown, new
construction, a protaplasm machine which has no counter-
part in industry.
If the technical world will now make use of tha biology
of the peridineae in its lectures in schools it cannot omit
the study of the silica-algae, as well; for they also have a
PLANTS AS INVENTORS 33
device which would give the engineer many a moment of
reflection. (See ill. 13).
Silica algae — in heavy scientific language, diatomaceae,
or still more heavily, bacillaricaea — lrave been seen by
everybody. You can see them on the bottom of any brook in
the late winter or early spring. Spread over the bottom for
many yards you will see a soft velvety cloth growth. These
are the silica algae. Or you need only look over the water of
111. 13. Mechanical arrangements in Silica filgae
1. Navicula dactylus, with shell strainers. 2. Side or “waist” view of navicula lata,
showing box structure of shell. 3. Raphe course of navicula major. 4. Strainer ar-
rangements of navicula gastrum. 5. Interior structure of tetracyclus lacustris. 6. Nitz-
schia gracilis, a ship form of the silica algae, one hundred times as long as its breadth.
(fill greatly enlarged.)
the ocean from our coast. You will see so many of these that
you could spend the rest of your life and still not count
them. They give the green color to our sea in all cold
climates. They are a golden yellow and change the natural
deep blue of the water, according to the law of the mixture
of colours to green. The silica alga is a unicellular organism;
the largest is visible only as a grain of dust. Perhaps they
are the masters of the earth, for they cover the surface of
the sea and the land wherever it is fertile. Together, they
Franck, Plants as Inventors
34 PLANTS AS INVENTORS
form the greatest “life-mass” that protoplasm has produced
on this planet.
I have never shown silica-algae under a microscope to
my pupils or friends without arousing startled glances and
exclamations of rapture. The bio-technical promises great
aesthetic enjoiment to future students. The technical student,
also, must not overlook them for they are technical master-
pieces of productive life. Unfortunately, up till now they
have been observed only for their beauty, by the dilettante,
instead of being carefully and systematically studied by the
1 select a beloved form out of the great book of models
which Nature has laid before us in the silica-algae. It contains
6000 illustrations, and it would, therefore, take more than
a generation to draw them correctly and calculate and trans-
late them into living practical understanding.
These plants, like the Chinese, carry their coffins with
them through their life; they even live in them: Their coffin
remains for millions of years after they are dead and returned
to the mass of matter of the universe. It cannot decay because
it is made of rock-crystal. It has, as well, unusual solidity.
The bio-technician would be unworthy of his name if he
did not draw the conclusion from this fact that solidity
is one of the necessary qualities of the silicate armour of the
diatomacea, and that it obtains it in the thriftiest way in
accordance with the natural law of economy.
If the shell must be firm, it must not, on the other hand,
be heavy. For the silica-algae swim, or at least, they creep
about freely and briskly. The silica-algae are thus presented
with a two-faced problem and their ingenious solution of it
entitles them to a special hall in the museum of Nature's tech-
Expressed somewhat paradoxically, the first problem is:
how to swim if one is forced to travel in one's coffin. The
solution, stated in simple modern, human terms, is travel in a
Hie glass house is a submarine boat of special design. It
is built like a box. (111. 13. sec. 2). It consists of a lower
part and a cover. There is a channel running along both the
under part and the lid, which ends in extremely strange spiral
curves at both ends of the skiff. (111. 13, secs. 1 and 3).
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
Learned men give that channel a Greek name, “Raphe". They
scrutinized, described, and made drawings of thousands of
raphes before a clever brain began to concern itself with its
functions. When the silica-alga forces water through the screw-
like end knots of the raphe it applies something of the principle
of reaction conduits as well as the principle of the turbine,
to propel itself forward. Indeed, the silica-algae swim rather
swiftly, in fits and starts, testifying to the employment of
an invention, the exact arrangements of which are new to tech-
nical science, and which might, perhaps, be worth imitating.
This invention often propels a glass ship of unusual pro-
portions. There are silica-algae a millimeter long which are
only two thousandths of a millimeter wide (111. 13, sec. 6).
Therefore, this petty engine accomplishes the same work that
our engines would if they were in a ship of 50 feet beam
and 21/2 miles long. The construction of the reaction conduits
of the silica-algae is better than those of our ships. I ihave 'made
many observations of the speed of the swift little algae living
in earth-clefts, and have calculated that they travel a yard
in ten seconds. Taking into consideration the size and power
of our best ships, this means approximately that the same
efficiency world produce a speed of 120 miles in the same
time, or 720 miles per hour.
With these dry numbers and calculations, the bio-technical
leads us again and again into' a fairy-book world of accomplish-
ment. Perhaps they will spur us on to new mighty feats of en-
gineering, for they prove beyond question how wide we are from
the ultimate solution of our problems of mechanics compared
to ‘the solution Nature has made; though we are on the right
road. We travel this road (although we proceed only half-way)
because there is only one road, and an invention is not
practicable unless it proceeds according to the
1 a w s 0 f n a t u r e. If we logically follow out the bio-technical,
it will indeed show us what improvements can be made in our
poor little world, our world of the laws of nature transformed
into domesticated animals.
In solving the problem of motion, however, the silica-algae
have solved only one of the problems for which they require
their house. It is made of rock-crystal substance for solidity;
mobility demands light weight. The two requisites contradict
each other. How are they acquired in spite of that?
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
To understand that you must first know why the shell
of the silica-algae must be firm. This quality certainly is not
demanded by the conditions on a rivulet bottom or on the
surface of the sea. Indeed you will be surprised, if you examine
the diatomaceae of the ocean, how tender their coat of armour
is. It is as thin as a breath of air, or a woven cob-web, and
so transparent that you must make an effort to see the shells
Lor a long time 1 , 1 could not understand this condition, until
one day it became clear to me that ocean and pond-bottom are
not really the original home of the silica-algae. They live
much more in the soil, in little water-clefts of loamy earth,
in meadows, fields, and prairies. Their ship-like shape, their
brown apparatus for utilizing light (which allows no bright
light to enter), their agility (which, in the ocean, has no sense),
and their coat of mail are accommodations to that life.
For these water-clefts, which drain into the soil, exist only
for a short time after rains. After a week's dry spell they
close up, and would crush the little inhabitants if not for
their resistant coat of mail.
The circumstances of this sort of life demand unheard of
resistance. It has so often been proved technically that in-
sufficient bodies are so constantly destroyed, that those that
persist must represent masterpieces of strength against pressure.
Indeed if you will take the trouble to examine the silica-
algae — hundreds of thousands exist in every thimble-full
of arable earth* — you will see instantly that this is so.
Their shells are firm and strong and have special stiffening
supports, cross-beams, chamfers, supports and girders in order
to increase their stiffness. In a word, they have all the in-
ventions which man also employs in structures which must
sustain great pressures.
We have known these strengthening methods of the silica-
armour for a long time; we have used the manifold forms to
design thousands of structures. When their form was agreeable
to the eye, we spoke of “artistic natural forms", and imagined
an aesthetic instinct in the plasm which produced them. The
silica-algae were recommended as models for the art-world,
*) The water forms have emigrated from the continent to the sea,
where they took other shapes, through rivulets and lakes.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
and artists directed their attention to them. The technical man,
alone, who could have obtained most from their study, neglected
From now on, for their own interest, they will study the
silica-algae, especially the earth species, and will conceive that
a scaffold construction made of such tender material which
resists a pressure of many atmospheres must be adaptable to
our use, also. Necessity made us unknowingly discover many
laws made use of by them; for no other construction had equal
resistance. Now we can select from the hundreds of building-
types which exist among the silica-algae the optimal solution of
pressure-resisting forms. In this form, of course, there must
be the greatest economy of material, making for the cheapest
The silica-algae cells have attained this optimum, for they
were forced to it by the necessity of securing lightness essential
to agility. Therefore its shells develop into a skeleton for the
necessary points of pressure with cross-beams between; and
have omitted filling-in walls wherever possible. In this, it
is the model of our steel sky-scrapers, as well as for all
architects who must build weight sustaining structures. The
architects of the Gothic period, for instance, with their pointed
arches, and their perfection of the blending of planes into
systems of columns and arches, construed the purest effects
of necessity into the most artistic. The vegetable cell of the
silica-algae has done the same thing in its construction. In
this sense, one of the charming buildings of Venice, or the
Maison du Roi of Brussels, or the Doges Palace or the Ca
Doro at Venice, and the artistic and no less charming forms of
one of the silica-algae, are equal manifestations of one and
the same law.
With this remark, the mind of the reader is prepared for
consideration of the faculties of performance in the
plant-cells, where they are not exposed singly to the
struggle for existence, but have joined with others to effect
certain functions as useful members of an organized whole.
A single plant cell is only a building-stone in the society
of many similar building-stones in a large many-celled plant.
This sentence should be repeated a hundred times daily until
it is worn out in thoughtless fluency. It contains the entire
interpretation of bio-technical science. Like everything in this
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
book which seems astonishing and startlingly new, the prin-
ciples underlying it have been evident under the surface of
knowledge for a long time and have been mentioned before in
disconnected explanations, and sentences.* But the connection
was always missed; and it is this connection which gives sense
to it and encourages practical application. We were in the same
position in regard to the bio-technical as the children playing
in South Africa, who found glittering stones which were only
playthings for them, until the first man came and recognized the
stones as Kimberley diamonds.
When we erect buildings from bricks and build machines
from iron parts, we only follow the road laid out by the laws
of the world, which order every complex system to be com-
posed of its parts. The same path is followed by the seed
of a plant which fabricates cell building-stones by division,
and from them erects its building.
The single cell is here a hollow brick, with walls, with
a variety of technically estimable walls.
Human buildings are mostly built of solid bricks of less
valuable properties. It is only lately that we have learned the
advantages of the hollow brick, and I do not doubt that the bio-
technical will influence not only the engineer, but the architect
as well, and turn their attention to hollow-brick construction,
from which will develop a hitherto undreamt of boom in such
Hollow bricks are light, warm in winter and cool in summer,
and more economical than solid stones. Solid cells are em-
ployed by plants only for special purposes to which they are
It is true that we can bake hollow bricks only out of loam
and quartz sands (somewhat similar to the silica cells). The
plant, however, fabricates them out of cellulose, cork, wood,
silicic acid (really glass) and sometimes even out of iron
(in certain algae cells). It encloses them sometimes in a coat
of wax, varnish, rubber, gelatine, or cement. That ensures for
their building a selection of materials not possible for us.
Cellulose, itself, is a building-material which exites our envy.
*) This is true especially of Part I. Carrier constructions and other
mechanical arrangements in stalks and tree-trunks, the wearing arrangements
of the plancton-algae, the structure of bones and elbows, were all given
individual attention, but never understood as a whole.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
What is cellulose?
If we say that it is a carbohydrate which can be changed
into starch and sugar, it sounds well but technically means
very little. We say more if we state simply that cellulose
Every wood-pulp mill, turming out mile-long rolls of
newsprint paper, works up cellulose. We once had great hopes
in the reported discovery of the secret of making linen and
cloth from the cellulose product of pine wood.
The plant builds paper-houses. They are iwarm, light,
cheap, and attractive. When it stores wood-stuff in its cells
to impregnate their walls, it utilizes a process which surpasses
human power. It makes wood from cellulose, and we are
unable to imitate it and make cellulose from coal and water
in commercial quantities. We cannot procure wood, so essential
to our industry and our culture, without despoiling and
destroying plants. Man is in the same predicament when it
comes to procuring starchy grain foods, upon which his
nourishment depends. He gains his daily bread only as a
servarE of the plant. In its service, he must till the soil by
the sweat of his brow; he does not disdain the use of dung,
in which he sees a precious fortune. For the good of the plant
he has ordered his calling, his thinking, and his feeling. For
it he implores the heavens for rain, and works hard and long
at harvest-time. All, however, because he is a bungler in the
chemical industry, and the plant a master.
I will not repeat things so self-evident as the import-
ance of wood in man’s cultural life. But I wish to take
three facts from the great book of technical accomplishments
by way of illustration, to throw light into the pitch-black
darkness surrounding the plant as inventor. These are the
elasticity of wood-fibre, its osmotic qualities, and the colloidal
qualities of the protoplasm wall.
The best steel-rod has a resistance of about one hundred
and thirty pounds to the square millimeter* cross-section;
iron has about one half; and the best copper, though a very
tough substance, somewhat less. Similar tests for strength
were made with fibres from the inside of living bark, with
the following results:
*) A millimeter is approximately V 25 of an inch.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
A fresh straw thread — the fibre from the inside of the
rye outer-wall — has a resistance of thirty-five to fifty pounds,
the fibre, of lily-stalks, fifty pounds, and New Zealand flax a
trifle more. There is no commentary necessary except that
drying-out increases their tensile strength.
Wood has the quality of expanding through absorption of
water. This is a quality which all vegetable matter has. This
expansion makes available an enormous energy. It has been
calculated that a cubic yard of expanding vegetable matter can
lift more than twenty-five thousand tons. This is the explan-
ation of why trees can split rocks into fragments with their
growing roots, and dislodge houses. Since ancient times man
has made use of this power. It is used in mining. Wooden
pegs are driven into small chinks. It is then only a question
of time until the absorption of water will cause them to swell
and tear asunder the surrounding rock. Man can, with the help
of the technical qualities of the plant, move mountains.
Behind this “expansion" of the plant, lies another quality
of the plant, which is the real reason for the immense tech-
nical superiority of the plant's building-material. This is the
colloidal quality of protoplasm and all its products.
What does that high-sounding scientific phrase mean? Scien-
tific explanations do not throw much light on it when they
state that a colloid is a heavy, or uncrystallisable body, which
dissolves very slowly. Therefore, we must try to demonstrate
the remarkable qualities of colloids in an other way.
Rubber is a colloid solution. The rubber solution which the
motorist knows so well is not a liquid, not a gas, and not a
solid body. We could quite well say that a colloid is the fourth
state which matter can assume. We can change all metals into
colloids; we can also change silicic acid and all albumins into
this form. Probably, some day, we shall be able to do the same
thing with all matter. Now it is very curious that we have
found a cell or honey comb structure in all colloids. It is true
that we cannot expect to find any special secret in that fact,
for we already know that the cell is the technical form of a
colloid, the protoplasm. The whole life of plants is a
problem of colloids.
Upon this knowledge a special branch of bio-technical
science will be founded. The workers in it will seek to pry
from the plant its priceless technical secret. Its discovery
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
is possible for the plant uses it every hour, though we are
still miles from its disclosure. This secret is the colloidal
If you wish to get a visible picture of Hell, go down into
the stoke-hold of on ocean steamer. Half-naked diabolic figures,
black with soot, waving brandishing-irons and shovels, receive
you. Flames light the dark hole of these kulis of the god of
heat. Their prison is vaulted with immense, heavy iron plates,
all alike covered with numer-
ous drops of sweat, and all
trembling under the enormous
pressure on their walls. Fresh
coal is shoveled into the boilers
amid the wild songs of the
demons. They rage and rave
around the boiler; and loud
clankings as of innumerable gi-
gantic fists pounding on the boil-
er-walls, arise, threatening to
burst them open. But the ship's
engineer is not romantic. He
cooly explains, “Pressure of
Steam” and reads the steam-,
gauge, “Sixteen Atmospheres''. 1
Ship-boilers are tested up to eighteen to twenty-five atmos-
pheres, that means from 270 to 375 lbs. for each square inch.
The thick black iron-plates, solidly held together by rivets,
assure this strength. Generally, it is believed that the thick-
ness of the boiler-walls must be one two-hundredth of the
diameter of the boiler.
If you look at living plant-cells under the microscope,
you will be surprised to see how full they fill their reservoir.
But the addition of only a very small quantity of sugar-
solution is sufficient to cause the shrinking up of the highly
sprung wall. The botanist calls that a debasement of the
“osmotic pressure”, and in an ingenious way succeeded in
measuring that pressure. He arrived at the astonishing result
that, in every normal vegetable cell, it amounts to five to ten
atmospheres, as much as in a small steam-boiler.
The interesting thing for us in this, is the thinness of the
skin which sustains this pressure, and of what substance it
111. 14. The Largest Boiler in the World
Front view of a ship’s boiler.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
is made. It is of plasmatic nature, that is of colloidal structure.
From this simple chain of facts we can conclude that col-
loidal membranes have an enormous strength
which surpasses that of iron.
That is why inner-bark fibres have such great tensile
strength. They, also, are of colloidal structure.
But we are not yet finished with our astounding revelations.
The cell membrane of the turnip, one twenty-five thousandth
of an inch thick, sustains a pressure of 21 atmospheres (315
lbs. per square inch). The wall of this "boiler" is scarcely
thicker than one five-hundredth of its diameter.* It holds this
pressure without noise or rumblings, contrary to the ship's
boilers. Man must use iron-plate an inch thick, where nature
employs a thin membrane. That is the difference between
man’s technical ability and that of plants.
Here is a new problem for the engineer, a new dream for
sleepless nights. How can colloidal boilers be constructed?
The task is known; the solution is possible. Surely the human
mind will not rest until the steam boilers are all scrapped.
In the light of the thoughts awakened by the plant’s
mechanical wonders, we clearly see new sign-posts pointing
beyond our present-day achievements. We see that the oft
repeated “mechanical age" lies ahead and not behind us. Man
can gain control of the forces of nature in another sense from
what has been meant until now. He can employ all the
principles of living organisms, and he will have occupation
for all his capital, power, and talents for hundreds of years
Every brush, every tree can teach him; can give him
counsel, and give him pointers for numberless inventions,
apparatus and technical equipment. A simple leaf contains
the arrangements of a great industry, and it is most astonishing
that man has been blind to its possibilities for such a long-
time, and neither saw nor understood that he held its secret
in his hands. To prove this statement, I will explain its
The leaf contains a complicated ventilator, a drying-appara-
tus, a multitude of light, inimitable power-engines, a cooling
*) According to Pfeffer, the osmotic pressine in mycodertna can rise
to approximately 160 atmosphere (a ton and a quarter pressine per
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
apparatus, and a hydraulic press. It is therefore a factory
containing an assortment of machinery.
We shall consider first those which are quite unknown in
Of all the raw materials which are at the disposition of
living organisms including man, none are in such available
abundance as air and water, or in more exact language, as
the gases, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbonic acid.
Man utilizes only one of them, and that only in the last few
years. We use nitrogen now to make saltpetre; the others
The plant-cell employs all four, and therewith has tapped
the cheapest raw-material reservoir of the world. But it would
take a whole book to explain all its processes, and I must
therefore confine myself to one, the capture of carbonic acid
and its fabrication, by the addition of water, into sugar.
For thousands of years men busied themselves with specul-
ations on why the world was created. It is only in the last
seventy years that they have systematically considered h o w
the world is really arranged. Unfortunately this has not been
long enough to learn completely the chemical physiology
of the vegetable cell. Therefore, we have only superficial
notions of its processes.
We see that almost every plant-cell above ground contains
green pigment, and can ascertain by simple experiments that
these cells, constantly while they are exposed to sun-light,
give off oxygen. They also store a stuff which consists of coal
and water (carbonic hydrate), and which, in its liquid state,
is called sugar, in its crystalloid form, starch. Closer obser-
vation shows that they utilize carbonic acid taken from the
air, and cannot work without water.
That is an explanation |in simplest form of the most
significant invention ever made on this earth. The whole life
of plants, as well as that of animals and man, depends upon it.
Without it, life would perish. It must, therefore, have been
one of the first inventions after the arrival of life on this
Human technique is a long way from being able to imitate
this process, which is, in truth quite simple. We do not
entirely understand it, yet, because we have not been able
to learn the exact composition of the green pigment; for
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
when we call it the green of the leaves, or in scientific language,
Chlorophyll, we do not explain anything. It means very
little more to know that it is an albumin combination. The
haemoglobin of our blood is a substance very much like it,
and also an albumin combination. Its chemical combination
is known exactly: C 758 H 1203 N 195 Fe S 3 .
This formula is hopelessly exact, for our chemists can
not build such a complicated frame from its elements. Such
refined synthetic chemistry is possible only for plants.
Silent and a lovely bright green in the sunlight my small
garden greets me. I am ashamed to tread the smallest leaf
under foot, having the same feeling of vandalism when I do
so that you would have if you walked rough -shod over the
delicate mechanisms of costly watches.
We have much reason to look thoughtfully at the yellow-
green spring leaves, in which thousands of sun-power machines
work steadily without rest, from morning to evening, to produce
for the community the two important foods, sugar and flour.'
I call them sun-power machines because their specialty
is to utilize the energy of the sun's beams. What steam is for
the locomotive, the sun's rays are for the green stuff of
the leaves. Their productivity is ideal mechanical technique;
it is the optimum, itself. An ideally simple apparatus, and the
source of power, the sunlight, omnipresent; with these the
little leaf-factory turns the cheapest raw material into a precious,
irreplaceable product. Matter can not be changed in manufac-
ture more completely than it is here, and you will agree with
me that, the biotechnical is the top rung of
You can observe the simplicity of the apparatus, how well-
ordered and humanly familiar it is, in many charming pictures.
I advise you to search out a common water liver-wort
(marchantia), which you will seldom fail to find in moist,
shaded stone-walls or rocks. In its outer form you will see
a tendency towards division into diamond shape sections,
each of them corresponding to the room of a factory. If you
force your way inside — best done by cutting thin cross-sections
to be placed under a microscope — you will see that strange,
but still again, familiar picture reproduced in illustration 15.
There is an arch over the ground, and under it several apparat-
uses are grouped side by side. The little sun-power engines
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
usually consist of two or three cylinders in which the precious
pigment is exposed to the light in small disk arrangements. The
fluid products trickle through the walls of the apparatus and
are drawn from the ground through little channels. The
light streams in strong and bright through the vaulted, glass-
like roof, which even has a large ventilating shaft for the
carbonic acid and the water vapour to enter. Everywhere the
same principles as in human machinery; everywhere the law
of necessity brings similar forms, in nature and in human arts.
The leaves of trees and bushes are generally designed in
another style, though the same law governs both. The ventilator
is made much more “artistically" with a system of shafts
and window-sashes. The diversion of the raw and half-finished
111. 15. Ä “Factory Interior” in the Plant World
Longitudinal section of marchantia.
products through a complex net of directing channels every-
one has seen if he has seen the veins and stalks of a leaf.
The plant unfolds as a real industrial village if it is carefully
studied. There are a hundred gradations, ever new forms of
accomplishing tasks, which are more perceptible to the mechanic
than to the scholar. There are elevators, coolers, condensers,
stuffing-boxes, filter and hydraulic presses, elcctroly tical ap-
paratuses, and evacuating pumps. The more of an expert you
are, the more technical forms you will find. I have been able
to cite hundreds of technical plant inventions. There are
whirligigs, Segner water-wheels, shears, clamps, hollow ball-
bearings, automatic doors, springs, diaphragms, balance weights,
reflectors, outriggers, couplings, gas-balloons, parachutes, and
an endless variety of similar mechanical parts. I have only
touched the surface. It is also quite clear that the animal and
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
human bodies have produced a multitude of other inventions
to meet other needs. Inanimate nature — the clouds, moun-
tains, and electrical energy of the air realize still other technical
developments. The knowledge of these forms will open the
ga'tes to a new world of human achievement.
There are, in this great multitude of strange applications
of physico-chemical laws, a number which are unknown to
mechanics; others which we can try although we have not as
yet been able to analyse the principles on which they work.
There are many inventions in plant-life which the botanist
failed to recognize owing to his lack of technical knowledge.
We can end our visit to the plant’s bio-technical museum
with a survey of some of these strange phenomena.
A phenomenon, unknown before discovered in a bio-
technical study of plant-life,
is the employment of hydraul-
ic presses in leaves. Man
employs the hydraulic press
more and more frequently; it
belongs to the seven great
technical miracles of the age.
Steam-forges, so long objects
of wonder and admiration,
have been replaced in ever
increasing numbers for the
last decade by the silent com-
pound-press, which is an ap-
plication of the hydraulic-
An entirely new class of tool machines has been devel-
oped in the last generation, fulfilling the traditions of the
Titan. We turn a lever and cut through a sheet of zinc ten
inches thick. Our forges fashion monster ship's screws like
the one reproduced on page 29, and houses and bridges are
picked up and carried to another locality. When we think
of ocean liners we think of immense structures like the Levia-
than, of office buildings of towering masses like the Wool-
worth or Equitable buildings. In their construction, pieces
lifted into place.
111. 16. R Modern Compressor of more than
seven thousand tons pressure. The same
principle is used in plant leaves.
thousands of tons in weight had to be
This was all done by the judicious application of a funda-
mental law of hydrostatics: the pressure upon water in a
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
closed cylinder will be transmitted in every direction with
equal force. We can, therefore, multiply the pressure to be
applied by enlarging the cylinder wall. If we take two vessels,
one with a iwall-surface a hundred times greater than the other,
and join them by a narrow tube, we can exert a pressure in
the little vessel which will transmit it multiplied many times
to the larger.
This is the theory of all hydraulic presses, of all hydraulic
With this knowledge, you may now consider a leaf of a
plant, 'that of the common garden fuchsia, or of the nastur-
tium, or strawberry, or dew-mantle (A 1 c h i m i 1 1 a), or any
that grow in a neighbouring meadow. If you take joy in
nature and have only a little knowledge of botany, you know
that all these leaves are a sort of weather-signal or prophet.
If when you go into the garden on a hot morning you find
dew-drops sparkling on the furrowed edges of the leaves,
you can know that it will soon rain. Really, the water-drops
exuded from the leaves show only that the air is already
saturated with moisture and that the normal evaporation from
the green parts of the plant cannot take place, whereupon the
surplus is pressed out along these crevices.
In the tropical woods, during the rainy season when the
air is so humid that every cooler object is immediately covered
with little drops of dew, this guttation (the scientific name
for this phenomenon) occurs with increased vigour compared
to that in our climate. Swamp plants drive out (or even
throw out) twenty-five to eighty-five drops a minute from
every one of their leaves. Sometimes tiny fountains bubble
out from these little water crevasses. A colocasy has been
observed, which one night drove the water out of the top of its
leaf with so much force and rapidity that it rose about four
inches above it.
To make this possible the water must have pressure be-
hind it, of course. Where does that pressure come from?
It is impossible that it can be only the root-pressure, which
causes, as everyone knows, trees to bleed in spring. This
“fountain", however, requires a much greater force. The solution
of the riddle depends upon the following facts: Under the
water-crevasses there is a large empty space joined by a tiny
channel to the plant's water-conduits, which draw the water
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
from the soil. In this way the principle of the hydraulic
press is applied. The slightest increase of pressure in the
roots is multiplied in the open space in the same proportion
as its size is greater than the pipes in the root. In other words,
there is a pressure ten to one hundred times greater in the
reservoir of the leaf, which forces the water to bubble or
even spout out of the outlet. If this process had been shown to
a physicist of former ages, he would have been able to
recognize the principle involved, and the invention of the
hydraulic press might have resulted thousands of years earlier.
How important the consequences of this antecedence would
have been! But then memories of early historical developments
perplex us. Were not all our technical achievements known
in antiquity? Were there not steam engines in Serapis in
Alexandria? Did not Ktesibios construct a “water-machine"?
Did not the Egyptians of the Ptolemaic Dynasty ride in self-
propelled carriages? Were not fire-engines a common sight
throughout the Roman Empire? Was not the Third Century
A.D. a century of technical achievement? And yet all was
submerged again in the course of centuries, and man had to
recreate his inventions once more from their rudiments with
the greatest of effort.
Why this retrogression? How can things, once striven
for and attained, be lost again by mankind? Is our culture
really not enduring?
The bio-technical gives the answer to this melancholy
question. For it teaches us to think biologically, and shows
us the root of every invention: necessity. Every-
thing develops, if necessity demands it. In the entang-
le m e n t of needs you will find the law showing
the new form to unravel i t. Given the situation requir-
ing the application of the hydrostatic law and the first drops
of water bubbled out of the leaves. The plants were relieved
by the process, and passed it on to their descendants. When
Alexandria became desolate under the assaults of the Monks
of Thebes, and when Rome perished in the migration of
nations, the new masters of the world had no need of
mechanics. What use could the hunter of elk find for the
steam propelled hero's carriage? Culture had no place among
his needs. We have here a parallel to the ship-building
masters of the water-drop, which changed in the course of
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
the history of their race into other forms no longer requiring
the ability to swim, and who, therefore, laid aside the technical
culture of their predecessors.
Reality has no tradition; necessity takes its course through
the world without sentimentality. Necessity turns the world's
wheels; with a turn of its lordly wand it can make the dead
rise up, or the living fall from the tree of life.
It is not the plant which invents; nor yet we;
but the law of the mechanical form is fulfilled
We do not usually like to face such stark truth; but, if,
after all, reason has gained the mastery over emotion, we can
understand how the mechanical, the mere usefulness of
existence, must also have triumphed. Called into being simul-
taneously with “existence" it controls everything in the world,
giving us our one steadfast star in the great sea of change.
ff you have followed me so far into the study of the
“technique of plants" you will yourself be able to answer
the most current objection to the new bio-technical science.
There are people, who, in spite of the great array of facts,
say that man is not restricted to the inventions of nature,
but is himself sovereign in his inventive and technical power.
For he has a great number of technical achievements to his
credit which could not possibly be copied from nature. Nature,
for instance, does not know electric accumulators, nor the
locomotive, nor automobiles, nor are-lamps, nor typewriters.
This objection completely overlooks the fact that no
organism anywhere needs to store electricity in large enough
quantities to require accumulators. But when an organism
needs electricity, as the electric-cell (gymnotus e 1 e c t r i -
cus) does, then it employs the same doctrines of electricity
as man. And the organism uses organs of motion in quite
another field of perfection than the locomotive. And one of
the most important principles of railroads, the diminution
of friction by having the wheels run over rails, can be
seen repeated a thousand times in nature, where every con-
tinuous regular movement creates a “slide" on the same prin-
ciple as the rails. Since one evening when I was in the Desert
of Arabia, meditating on this question, and noticed the sharp
hollow channels and polished borders which the daily desert
winds have carved in the hard limestone of the mountains, there
Franck Plants as Inventors. I
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
by reducing the friction encountered, since that time I have
observed the application of this law a thousand times. The
technical form is world-wide; it produces itself from the
necessity of the activity, itself.
Swimming, or running on four or six legs, or flying, are
all much more perfect solutions of the problem of motion
than the steam or electric motor, which put into gainful
power only a few percent of the energy derived from the coal.
Indeed, this technical weakness of these motors, is a general
cause of complaint.
111. 17. fl View Near Cairo.
Showing Wind-Current Paths.
Arc-lamps are unnecessary for organisms, which have pro-
duced cold light for every colour. Think of the lightning-bugs,
glowing fungus, and deep-sea fish.
The typewriter and the bicycle are lever appliances, really
very primitive but exceedingly ingenious mechanisms, which
have their fore-runners in the lever arrangements of the ani-
mal's running parts. And above the typewriter there stands
the human hand, which cannot be matched, as you know, by
mechanical appliances. That is one reason why handwork is
esteemed in works of art high above articles of mass machine
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
But it is of more value in evidence than the citing of
single examples to remember that bio-technical accomplishments
are the result of the expressions of need: that the final shaping
is the direct expression of the want. Only to this end is the
creative impulse awakened; and only in daily use is the optimal
form selected. Every invention of plant and animal (includ-
ing man) must be evaluated and compared from this view-
point. Therefore, before the biotechnical student imitates an
arrangement of nature, he must seek to know exactly the need
which it fulfills. Only when this need is identical with that
for which he is trying to find a solution, will the solution
of nature be the optimal form for his purpose, also.
We can see this most clearly if we compare some inventions
of man which are also used by organisms but without being
developed to the end required by man.
There are, for instance, cooling devices in plants which
belong to the same class of machines as our refrigerating
The principle employed in most refrigerating apparatus
is that of evaporation. The cooling liquid (ammonia, carbonic
acid, etc.) flows through a system of pipes and absorbs the
warmth from the surrounding objects through evaporation.
In the same way in which the water in a steam-engine is
used over and over again, the freezing liquid is also compressed
and evaporated over and over again in an endless cycle. The
temperature is constantly diminished by the evaporation, so
that it is a simple matter to freeze water and make ice.
No plant has any need for ice; it eschews this life-destroying
matter wherever possible. It therefore has no reason to develop
its cooling apparatus to the extent required by man; if it did,
by chance, develop it so far, this useless, nay pernicious, ap-
paratus would be destroyed instantly. In this case, therefore,
the perfect form is not reached, but only one sufficient to
produce a slight cooling through the condensation of water-
The urn-plant (Dischidia Rafflesiana) of India will serve
as an example. It is a tree-climber, and often exposed to long
droughts. It therefore produces two kinds of leaves. Besides
the ordinary leaves it has a variety of strange jug-shaped
leaves, which are much contracted at the upper opening. A
many-branched air-root with a very small diameter grows
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
in the leaf at this opening. This air-root connects with the
general water-system of the plant.
The inside of the nearly closed urn is covered with a
brown wax-coated skin with innumerable fissures.
Let us consider the function of the whole arrangement.
The fissures breathe out a great quantity of water-vapour
and carbonic acid. Both are
the common product of
perspiration and breathing.
Water-vapour saturated with
carbonic acid, however, is a
“cold-mixture" in the sense
employed in the refrigerating
industry. They lower the tem-
perature in the closed urn
(which is covered with an
insulator, wax) producing
The condensed drops of
moisture roll down the
smooth wax sides, and form
a little pool of water on the
bottom of the jug. The air-
roots suck in this water, and
in this way gather a consider-
able supply for the use of
the plant out of its own
We can say that this plant
waters itself. Indeed it ob-
tains so much water, that it
a great deal of
moisture, and thus continues
the endless cycle. The whole arrangement would be a rather
high order of condenser, such as we are accustomed to, except
for the employment of the “cold-mixture". This makes the urns
of Dischidia the biotechnical fore-runners of the ice-machine.
111. 18. The Urn Leaves of the Dischidia,
a plant refrigerator. (The leaf in foreground Sweats OUt
is cut through longitudinally.)
The imperfection of the model is, in this case, a token of
its perfection. It serves as an illuminating example of what
the biotechnical student must not lose sight of in his research:
PLANTS AS INVENTORS 53
the purpose for which the plant employs its apparatus deter-
mines its form.
There is one chapter in botany before which the biotech-
nician as well as the botanist stand silent and cannot explain.
Effects are produced before their eyes to which neither ex-
perience nor their understanding is equal. They are a perfect
example of the importance of judging everything in the plant-
organism exclusively with the consideration of its purpose.
This chapter is the chapter of the “waterworks" of trees.
It is referred to thousands of times; expounded in school-
books; and yet is as dark a secret today as when the first
naturalists looked with astonishment into the mysterious inter-
ior of a plant. We have learned since that day, nearly two-
hundred and fifty years ago, that the inside of every plant,
whether it is a simple herb, wheat or corn, or a towering tree,
contains a network of hollow piping.
What is a pipe? A hollow-staff! The old technical form
which water builds for itself in rushing on its way through
gaps and crevasses between firm substances. It is the way
of least resistance, which the water digs and smooths until
it obtains the optimal form of a straight, smooth pipe.
In the plant, the water does not descend, but rises; for
the water-system must supply the entire plant to the upper-
most tips of its branches and the highest little leaf with the
precious moisture. For without it there can be no life.
Among human needs a similar requirement has arisen only
since the building of modern cities. The many-storied house
of the great city is likewise a plant with many cells, in which
thirsty inhabitants demand water, even in the top-most room.
And my exposition up to this point would be worthless if
all of my readers do not at once conclude for themselves that
the human solution of the problem paralleled that of the
plant. We and the plant must both employ a system of pipes,
branching out wherever necessary, and drive the water through
it by pressure.
Thus far everything is transparently clear and satisfactory.
The raising of the water can be attained in various ways.
We naturally chose the way of least resistance. If there is a
source of water in the mountains nearby, the water is brought
from there. For then it will ascend by its own pressure,
through the system of connecting pipes, to a point as high
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
as its source. In flat country, however, we must build an
artificial mountain out of masonry or other material. That
is the water-tower or reservoir, in which the surface of the
water must be higher than the highest faucet in the city.
But we must raise the water up to the reservoir. That
we do with pumps. A suction-pump is limited in its action to a
very small height. We must use
pressure-pumps to raise water
more than a hundred or so feet;
and, naturally, the greater the
height the more pressure we
must use. Every additional yard
of height calls for extra power.
Many thousands of horse-power,
are used to keep the supply of
water for a city running. Who-
ever has seen the great, tremb-
ling engines in a pumping-
station did not depart with the
impression that here was a per-
fect application of power. Work
and effect are here seen in wide
We find in the great mines,
where Nature has a dark face
and everything is enveloped in
the breath of tragedy, the most
disconcerting picture of the
struggle between man's will and
the iron resistance of matter.
It seems as if Nature were angry
at these desecrations of her in-
ternal peace and quiet, and is
always threatening to destroy the intruders and their work.
For protection, they have installed in the interior of their
mine, many feet below the light of day, huge engines, which
can be heard chugging and groaning deep in the otherwise
silent passages. The wheels of the engine spin at lightning-
speed, always pumping out water, which would rise many
feet if they stopped pumping only for one day. It pours in
from all sides from underground sources; some rises in springs
Water Pumping arrangements
in a Mine.
111. 20. Climbing Palms which pump water over six hundred feet.
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
from below, some seeps in through the earthen ceilings, and
some flows in channel courses. The power of steam raises up
water from depths of over thirty-five hundred feet, only to
let it flow' away without any use.
Is this a biotechnical process? No! In the first place be-
cause no organism is thirty-five hundred feet high, is the
evident, but superficial reply. The more thoughful man would
say that it is not important how many pumping-stations are
placed one above the other in a mine in order to drive out the
sea which threatens every mine. The important question is
if the plant, which often is as tall as a church-steeple, employs
pressure to raise the water through the pipe-system from its
roots to its upper branches. And if it does employ pressure,
where are the engines which produce the power?
Here we find ourselves in the midst of the incomprehensible,
facing what is perhaps the most mysterious problem in botany
and biotechnical science, a problem which has occupied the
human mind again and again during the last hundred years.
We have not been able to solve this problem; we are able only
to describe its working.
We have been able to tell the story in rather exact formulae,
so that we no longer are apt to be led astray in our researches.
We are, I believe, standing before the last closed door.
I shall enumerate some of the principal acknowledged facts.
First of all the heights which the plants overcome are con-
siderably more than you are accustomed to think. An ordinary
church steeple is anywhere from a hundred and twenty-five
to two-hundred feet high; the highest in the world, the Munster
steeple in Ulm is five hundred feet high; the highest building
in the world, the Woolworth tower, is under six hundred feet
high. A good-sized white pine tree must force water two-
hundred and fifty feet high; the giant red-wood trees of
California are four hundred and fifty feet high; and the
eucalyptus trees of Australia some thirty or forty feet higher.
But there are climbing palms which must drive water through
more than six hundred feet of tortuous twistings above ground.
When we add the depth of their roots we find that these
palms must force water some six-hundred feet, which every
engineer will admit requires an immense amount of power.
But he has an explanation right at hand; he immediately thinks
of capillary power. My non-technical readers will bring to
PLANTS AS INVF.NTORS
mind their childish delight in dipping a piece of sugar into
a cup of coffee and watching the brown fluid rise up in it.
This action of the coffee is also the result of capillary
But capillary attraction fails to explain the cases we have
cited. Capillary attraction can raise water only a limited
height; and cannot cover the action in plants of over a hundred
feet in height.
There is no visible arrangement in plants which gives
a clue to this mystery. The system of pipes is there, it is
true; without a break it extends from the lowest root to the
highest leaf-nerve. Also, it can be stated that there is rari-
fied air above the rising column of water, just as there is in a
suction-pump. Hopefully, we immediately jump at a false con-
clusion: the atmospheric pressure
forces the water to rise in the
pipes. But our knowledge of phy-
sics quickly shatters that solution;
for we know that the atmospheric
pressure is equal to a column of
water only some thirty-four feet
We have also discovered a
certain root-pressure existent in
plants. Country people also know
about this pressure, and make
use of it in various ways. The peasant-maid steals away
into the fresh green May woods, and slashes a criss-cross
cut in the birch-tree, counting on the root-pressure to force
out the sap, with which she anoints her face in the expectation
that it will then become as smooth as velvet for the better
attraction of her beloved. The cultivator of wine-grapes knows
that the bleeding branches of his vines are natural in spring,
for it is merely the rising of the sap, and be thinks no more
about it. Scientists, however, have measured root-pressure;
in the fox-glove stalk it is sufficient to raise water a little
more than twenty one feet; in the trunk of the mulberry-tree,
on the other hand, the force is not great enough to raise water
more than a few inches. In no plant was this pressure found
to be more than enough to lift water more than fifty two feet.
Moreover we have no knowledge of the cause of root-
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
pressure. We have only observed that it is even active in dead
tree-trunks, and therefore does not depend upon living forces.
But it is clear that the pipe-system of plants is the fore-
runner of pressure and suction-pumps, even though it cannot
be questioned that the plant employs them in a manner which
we cannot imitate, since we do not understand it.
Every tree on the road-side, therefore, hides an invention
which man has not been able to realize; its leaves and branches
whisper that there are things of which our school knowledge
does not dream.
School learning, anyway, is so hide-bound that it often
passes by unheeded the important points of knowledge which
it already has. The early history of bioteclmical science contains
a most instructive and clear illustration of this statement.
A generation ago the Swiss scientist, Schwendener, discov-
ered one of the best examples of bioteclmical invention, and
was convinced that the laws of statics and mechanics are
completely exemplified in plant-life. Unconcernedly he observed
that “I beams”, the fundamental element of all steel construction
work, are also utilized in plant stalks and give firmness to them ;
he also noticed that the principle of the propeller is realized
in certain fruits of plants which whirl through the air when they
are ripe and ready for seeding (think of the maple tree).
He saw, he measured, was astonished, — but did not
dare to draw any conclusions. Before his eyes lay nature's
models of the great new inventions which were then occupying
everybody's attention. There was the camera obscura of
the human eye paralleling the photographic camera; the human
ear and the telephone; the corn-stalk and the bony skeleton
and the steel structure; flying-seeds and the propeller; and
an endless list of similar examples. Writers spoke of resemb-
lances, of analogies, of “organ-projection”, of a “philosophy
of mechanics”; they indicated, but never dared to follow their
thinking to its logical conclusion and say:
“There is only one law. We, natural beings, can only repeat
the law of protoplasm and the structure of the world. The
laws of mechanics are exemplified before our eyes in the objects
Instead, scientists quoted these parallels as a curiosity,
and straightway forgot them again. Above all, nobody ever
drew any practical conclusions from them. Botanists knew
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
the facts, but made no use of them. The biologist had nothing
to give to the mechanic or the engineer. The chemist and the
architect believed that biological knowledge lay outside of their
sphere, and did not concern them.
But similar oversights occur in all branches of life. Events
take place before our eyes; effect their miracles; draw us into
the whirl of their activity; but though we perceive them, we
fail to realize their importance until we discover their under-
Electricity has played in the atmosphere around man since
the first human being looked up into the heavens at a threat-
ening cloud. As’ a flash of lightning it blinded him; as thunder
it sounded its terrible, threatening report in his ears; it
demonstrated its power to him by sending giant trees crashing
to earth with its discharge. And yet for thousands of years
man remained ignorant of the fact that there is such a phenom-
enon as electricity, and therefore could not harness its power.
The rush of water over a falls crumbled the rocks; raging
breakers ground masses of granite sand; every hammered
piece of iron became warm; primeval man was still a naked
cannibal and just had learned the art of rubbing two sticks
together until smoke ascended, and then light and heat for
his dark cave. Millions of eyes have observed these events;
millions of men had their lives made more comfortable by
them, long before anybody thought of the natural laws which
governed their occurrence. The law of the conversion of energy
was discovered after many generations who had their existence
made possible by virtue of its application had passed away.
But it was only after its discovery that man could make real
use of its possibilities to become lord of its energies.
And this is true also of the biotechnical. Everywhere,
biotechnica! miracles lie close at hand, in every garden, in
every meadow, and every field. Every fleeing beetle is such
a miracle; likewise every fly that buzzes around our head; and
perhaps the greatest mechanical masterpiece of all is the hand
which reaches up to swat it. But man remains blind, to it
until the underlying law is pointed out, the law which is
written in large letters in woods, and fields, and heavens.
But shall we not believe that from this hour on, every-
body will see it, as today every educted man knows of elec-
tricity and the conservation of energy?
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
J have striven to present in as simple words as possible the
most instructive examples of biotechnical occurrences in plant-
life I have sought only to make clear the inter-relations
between our activities and the ring of nature. I have avoided
fanciful wording and brilliant pictures; for the facts them-
selves are so fantastic and puzzling that imagination must
not add one grain nor art one extra daub of colour to the
These matters are so important that one naturally speaks
a simple and direct language in referring to them. When the
world-spirit speaks, it speaks without furbishes. The bio-
technical chapter is really the chapter about the structure of
We studied it in the structure of plants and in the life of
unicellular organisms. However we should have found the
same facts and come to the same conclusions if we had derived
our examples from animals or from the remarkable internal
structure of man himself. We have deliberately chosen our
examples to show that the simplest technical forms are an
impression or mirror of the activity which formed them: the
spindle-form in swimming, we have seen, is the impression
of the force of the movement of water on the swimming body
to bring about the line of least resistance. Then we saw how
the activity shapes the tool, how the optimal form for move-
ment through the water (the screw) shapes the various forms
of “whips” in spirals. Step by step we followed the same prin-
ciple through higher forms, and witnessed astonishing and
A puzzling abundance of evidence unfolded before us, the
turbines of the water-drops and the pools in fissures in the
ground. Instead of admiring the artistic forms of nature, we
learned to value the complete mechanical forms manifested
by the activities of life. The great “mystery-book” opened its
pages to us. And in it were pictured the thousands of cell and
organ forms, in which we could read the life of the plant.
Nature whispered in our ears, every form is only the
frozen momentary picture of a process.
This formula opened the great gate to the biotechnical
treasure-house. Everything became intelligible, attractive, a fer-
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
tile source of inspiration, in contrast to the mere description
and listing which makes botany so dry a subject for most
people, of use only in making small conversation at table about
the varieties of vegetables and salads, and neglected for prac-
But our formula reawakens interest in the subject for the
poetical as well as for the practical. The former hear the
heart-throb of the world in botany; the latter see visions of
the golden stream flowing from the utilization of botanic
Botany and biology become essential fields of study for
every technical student. Man is shown a new means of profit.
The materialists will rejoice. Contentedly they can point to
the beautiful world as grist for their mill; the whole world
is a machine for them to pattern after.
But the materialists are wrong. Materialism is not a view-
point; but it is a method of working. The mechanism of the
world, on which, in the final analysis, the biotechnical science
rests, is as before still the riddle of existence. It is hidden
in our own breast; in our brain-cells which construct a world
out of their perceptions. It seems mechanical and material
because our brain conceives in material aspects, and our think-
ing proceeds according to the laws of mechanics.
It is certain that the biotechnical will influence the curri-
culum of our technical schools; perhaps entirely reform it.
Without doubt it can cause a new period of inventive pros-
perity in our industry; perhaps give the impetus to countless
new significant inventions. Industry need only stretch out
its hand to grasp them. A bright future opens up before our
eyes. Blessings will flow upon us from the biotechnical, and
we shall be able to live more comfortably and carelessly; the
millenium awaits us when we shall have copied the mechanics
of the whole world of organisms. Only then will the limits
of the mechanical be reached. Until then we shall have to
work and explore, to fathom the secrets of the universe. And
that will take centuries, for the world is large and every eon
harbours its mystery.
But the biotechnical has more to offer us than the material.
Mechanics are important. They are beautiful comforting evidence
of our sagacity when we are sunk in brooding doubt of our
intelligence They bring man his wealth and endow him with
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
his might; but they are only the servants of life. I, as an “out-
sider" looking into the magic circle, have had to devote long
study and much reflection to mechanical science; and have
therefore been able to form an unbiased opinion of its true
position in the great assemblage of powers which make up
It is clear that mechanics are not the basic factors of the
world, they are only one link in the chain of processes compos-
ing the activity of the universe.
If you turn back, and, with your present knowledge of the
laws of technical forms and events, consider our first ap-
proach from the new point of view to the “monster world",
you will understand fully what I intended to show. What did
we mean to convey, then? (Compare page 9). That the world
is a unity, each part of which influences all the others. In
other words, every part is also a hindrance and obstacle
to every other part. Who has not felt that in his own life?
The existence of other human beings, the material facts of
the world, all stand as obstacles to be overcome in the ful-
fillment of one's own destiny.
It was my thesis that we can conquer not only by the
destruction of disturbing influences, but by compensation and
in harmony with the w'orld. Only compensation and harmony
can be the optimal solutions; for that end the wheels of the
To attain its aim, life; to overcome obstacles, the organism
' — plant, animal, man, or unicellular body — shifts and changes.
It swims, flys, defends itself, and invents a thousand new forms
If you follow my thought, you will see where I am leading,
wliat the deepest meaning of the biotechnical tokens. It portends
a deliverance from many obstacles, a redemption, a striving
for the solution of our problems in harmony with the forces
of the world. On this road lies the optimum of existence; relief
from the pressure of difficulties.
Mechanics are not the end of life, I repeat. They are, how-
ever, the necessary tools for the poor struggling human being,
haunted by a thousand wants, and ever threatened with the
snuffing out of his existence if he fails to fill them.
In acquiring the wherewithal to satisfy them, man can do
no better than follow the ways discovered by nature. For
PLANTS AS INVENTORS
millions of years, these forms have been perfecting themselves
in the workshop of reality. Buffeted by hostile winds, threatened
by countless enemies; in the turmoil of existence only those
forms which satisfied most perfectly the object of their aim
surrived. The others perished by the wayside.
That is why the biotechnical, wherever it parallels man’s
purposes, is an object lesson of the perfection of the in-
strument which he must construct.
That the science which I have endeavoured to expound in
this little book is but in its embryonic stage, none will
more readily admit than I. Therefore, I have tried only to
point out its most significant facts; to draw the reader's
attention to the important role which it must play in our civili-
If from these few citations and commentaries the reader
has gained sufficient interest to continue his investigations
of the subject, I shall consider that my work has been